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Where It Wants To Be Profound, 'Youth' Is Instead Aimless

Gianni Fiorito
courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Harvey Keitel as Mick and Michael Caine as Fred in 'Youth.'

It's tempting to say that Paolo Sorrentino's Youth is obscure enough to make it seem deep, but that's only partly true. Youth can be pretentious. It can make you feel like you're circling the drain, and it can make you wonder just what the hell it's about.

But it does have moments of serious beauty and wonder.

Sorrentino's last film, The Great Beauty grabbed the coattails of Federico Fellini's monumental 1960 film La Dolce Vita. Youth tailgates on Fellini's 8½, except that while had one artist suffering a block, Youth has two.

Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) is a retired composer and conductor whose wife is afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, his daughter's marriage has collapsed, and a relentless pest of an agent of the Queen of England is trying to coax Ballinger into a command performance – which he refuses to do. Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) is a filmmaker trying to finish a script. Friends for decades, both men are around 80-years-old. Paolo Sorrentino sets the film at a spa in the Swiss Alps with a mostly aged clientele, and you might wonder why he calls his picture Youth.

I don't think it really is about youth, but it is about the paradox of youth and age.

At the spa, a massive 19th century main house sprawls like a palace, while new glass and steel construction pokes into the foreground. Young and old collide all over the movie. Ballinger and Boyle talk together in an outdoor swimming pool, as a naked Miss Universe slowly and deliberately walks into the pool and relaxes against the far side. A very famous young actor, played by Paul Dano, seeks advice from Ballinger.

The camera dwells on the loose, wrinkled skin of Ballinger and Boyle, but it's not just about the characters. These two actors have been on screen for roughly 50 years each. The collective audience remembers them as young punks, and now a movie has their characters comparing how hard it is for each of them to pee. When Jane Fonda shows up as a longtime actress in Boyle's movies, the picture has her made up so thick she looks like an ancient Morticia. The three actors deserve medals for bravery for letting Sorrentino make them look so decrepit.

Youth can drag. Boyle and Ballinger have endless conversations, in the pool on the paths around the spa, on a gondola. The two men are weighed down by regret and age, but instead of insight, the movie sometimes offers tedium.

It also wanders from its own path – at least it seems that's what's happening until the possibility looms that director and screenwriter Sorrentino has a marvelous and subtle sense of absurdity – maybe. An aged couple in the spa's sterile dining room sits in utter silence as they eat. Boyle and Ballinger have a running bet on whether the two will ever speak. Then one night the woman slowly rises to her feet, steadies herself, and slaps her husband's face so loudly everyone in the place jumps. In another scene, for an ecstatic minute, Ballinger sits in a meadow and conducts the mooing of the cows, their bells and the birds.

There's not much story to hang this material on – just the two old guys walking and talking amid lovely green hills – and that leaves other scenes flapping in the breeze. Ballinger and his daughter walk and talk about her broken marriage; Boyle rambles on with his fellow screenwriters; Ballinger gets massages and sees his doctor. The film wants something to make it cohere.

Yet images from Youth linger in the mind. An obese man is helped out of a pool. Ballinger and Miss Universe nearly collide on a pathway, there's a stark white dining room right out of Fellini, but still a tremendously powerful sight. And always the wonder -- how does youth become age?

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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